For the Birds Radio Program: Autumn's End

Original Air Date: Nov. 4, 1988

Is winter really here? The birds seem to think so. (3:31) Date confirmed.

Duration: 3′34″


(Recording of a Boreal Chickadee)

Dawn Dickey Duty is done for another season. Last Sunday, which marked my last counting day until next August, was a perfect day to close the season. I watched my dog Bunter licking frost off dead clovers as I shivered next to the brick wall at the Lakewood Pumping Station in the 13 degree darkness of dawn, thinking about the luxury of sleeping in on weekends. And the birds flying through were birds of winter. Along with the ravens, Evening Grosbeaks, and handful of goldfinches came true birds of winter like Pine Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, and Boreal Chickadees. A few Lapland Longspurs were rattling and whistling above me, and the sweet notes of Horned Larks joined with them. And there were Snow Buntings everywhere.

I had to drive along Scenic North Shore Drive at only about 40 miles per hour to avoid hitting them, but other drivers were apparently in more of a hurry than I, and so there were a lot of dead and dying birds along the roadsides. Migrating crows flew right along the road picking up a bunting breakfast as they moved along. Snow Buntings come here from the tundra, and aren’t accustomed to the fast pace of urban society. They appear pretty stupid to a lot of drivers because they just don’t fly out of the way like other birds, but remember that most of their lives they’ve only had to get out of the way of moose and caribou, which don’t normally travel at 55 miles per hour. These fragile birds have a lot of white on their wings and tails, and are often called snowflake birds for the way the white twinkles as they fly. Some will stay in central and southern Minnesota and Wisconsin all winter, and some will go further south to the central states. Because of cars and other urban hazards, there’ll be far fewer next spring to return to the tundra.

The most thrilling bird I saw on my last day at the pumphouse was an adult Peregrine Falcon cruising along in search of his breakfast. He was in a hurry, so I only saw him for a few seconds, but a few seconds of Peregrine Falcon are somehow better than whole hours of other birds.

There was a real feeling of winter in the air, which the birds apparently felt, too. The same day I was counting at the pumphouse, birders on an excursion up the shore found redpolls. They also found a King Eider, an exotic duck of the tundra, swimming in the Grand Marais harbor. This bird, belonging to the species which provides eider down, was a lot warmer swimming in Lake Superior than the birders watching him. .

A late Yellow-rumped Warbler spent much of the morning sitting on the wall near me. He made the normal yellow-rump chips, and I chipped right back, which seemed to amuse him. We had a long conversation in between my looking skyward and his optimistic searching in the frozen grass for one last insect. He didn’t fly off until I left, making a final chip goodbye as I got into my car. I said goodbye to him, and wished him a safe journey down to Texas. As I shut the car door for the last time, I wondered how he and the 100,000 other birds I counted this fall will fare over the dangerous time ahead. Bunter gave me an impatient lick, and I headed home for the winter.

(Recording of a Boreal Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”